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Relics Reveal Glory of Khitan Kingdom


In an era in which life is spent caged up in offices and football players are symbols of strength, why not experience the thrill lifestyle of an ancient ethnic group on horseback?

For hundreds of years since the 4th century, the Khitans led a nomadic life on the boundless grasslands of today's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region in north China.

They defeated the Hans with their undaunted cavalries and established the Khitan Kingdom, which ruled the vast northern China area for 209 years (916-1125) with one of the most open cultures in Chinese history.

Like the Mayans, the prosperous Khitans seemed to fall and disappear suddenly after their last king was captured by the enemy troops of the Jin Dynasty (1115-1234) established by Nuchen, another ethnic group in China.

In the exhibition entitled "Khitan Kingdom," which is held from June 10 to October 10 at the National Museum of Chinese History in Beijing, archaeologists are displaying the most precious relics of the Liao Dynasty (916-1125) unearthed in Inner Mongolia since the New China was founded in 1949.

"The Khitans are often regarded as bloodthirsty illiterates, due to the household Han legend Generals of the Yang Family, and this exhibition is the first in China to display its grand culture," said Tala, archaeologist and deputy director of the Cultural Relic and Archaeology Research Institute of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region.

On loan from the collections of the research institute and some public museums of the autonomous region, the 204 relics show a developed culture that merged the grassland culture, the Han culture and the Byzantine civilization then in Europe, according to Liu Zhaohe, deputy director of the Cultural Bureau of Inner Mongolia.

These relics, including dresses, gold masks, jewellery, ceramics, sculptures and glass artifacts, were mainly unearthed from the tombs of Princess Chen'guo and general Yelu Yuzhi, and discovered in a Buddhist pagoda in Qingzhou of Inner Mongolia.

The three discoveries made in Inner Mongolia from 1986 to 1992 are among the rare archaeological findings on the Khitan Kingdom, said Tala.

"Most relics of the Khitan culture were destroyed at the kingdom's fall and tombs were disinterred as a revenge from the Nuchen ethnic group oppressed in the reign of the Khitans," the archaeologist from the Mongolian ethnic group explained.

Powerful kingdom

Even from a few relics, people today can imagine how powerful the kingdom built on the nomads' horseback once was.

Legends say the ethnic group originated after a man on a white horse met a woman on a green bull, who gave birth to leaders of the first eight Khitan tribes.

The tribes prospered in the ninth century at the fall of the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907). They borrowed the Hans' political systems, founded the Khitan Kingdom in AD 916, and built its capital in Shangjing (today's Balinzuo Banner of Inner Mongolia).

Yelu Deguang, the Khitan king, led his army south in AD 947 and conquered Kaifeng in central China's Henan Province, which was then capital of the Later Jin Dynasty (AD 936-946).

In Kaifeng, Yelu changed the name of his kingdom to Liao. The territory of the Liao Dynasty covered most of northern China, including Youzhou (today's Beijing).

Around Youzhou, the Khitan army was at constant war with the army of the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127), as described in the legend Generals of the Yang Family.

The Khitan army conquered, in the 10th century, the Bohai Kingdom (today's northeast China), northwest China's Gansu Province and the Gaoli Kingdom (northern part of the Korean Peninsula), according to the History of Liao published in the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368).

"The Khitans, however, were more than just warriors on horseback," said Liu. "Their culture is widely known even in the West. In the Russian language today, the word 'Khitan' means 'China'."

As their kingdom spread over the "grassland silk road," which connects the Orient with Europe, they adopted an unusually open attitude to cultures and political systems of other ethnic groups.

Rulers of the Liao Dynasty preserved the political systems in the land they conquered. They divided the kingdom into two parts, ruling the Hans in the southern part with the Han systems and officials, and the Khitans in the northern part with the Khitan slavery systems, according to Tala.

Besides political systems, a tolerance of different cultures was seen in the Khitan Kingdom.

The current exhibition includes a number of very impressive items that are evidence of the splendid culture of the Khitans.

Splendid culture

"The Liao Dynasty established by the Khitans had its peculiar importance in ancient Chinese history when different ethnic groups co-existed," remarked Huang Chen from the education department of the National Museum of Chinese History. "The relics on display define not only the past of a lost ethnic group. They, to certain extent, define China."

For example, the funeral and burial customs of the Khitans maintained parts of their own tradition and absorbed some customs of the Han Chinese.

Khitan aristocrats during the Liao Dynasty often wore masks and hand-knit dresses made of metals such as silver, gold and copper.

Visitors to the current exhibition will see a 168-centimeter-long silver hand-knit dress unearthed in the tomb of Princess Chen'guo in Inner Mongolia in 1986.

Dating back to 1018, the net-like dress was made with fine silver thread 0.05 centimeters in diameter according to the shapes of seven parts of the human body: the head, arms, hands, chest and back, abdomen and legs. The different parts of the dress were put on the dead separately and then connected with silver thread.

The exhibition also includes a gold mask that has a silver net in the back. Discovered in the same tomb, the mask was made to copy the face of the deceased husband of the princess. It is a vivid portrait of the young man in his late 20s.

Among the exhibits are some daily utensils that demonstrate the nomadic life of the Khitans, such as a silver saddle covered with gold. Other implements include a silver cup with a handle, which was apparently influenced by the techniques of Tang Dynasty. A beautiful glass vase on display bears patterns that can often be seen in 8-10th century Egypt and Syria.

Featuring the colorful dresses of Khitan aristocrats, a gold belt with patterns of swimming dragons and a jade decoration with images of 12 animals are among the most eye-catching exhibits on display.

Also of note, are a silver pagoda and a pottery Buddhist bust, both 40 centimeters high, that are excellent sculptural works and rare historical proof of the prevailing belief of Buddhism in Liao Dynasty with the influence of the Han Chinese.

"The history of China was characterized by the conflicts and convergence of dynasties established by different ethnic groups, among them the Liao, Song and Jin. They all contributed to the forming of a united, multi-ethnic nation of China," said Han Ming, a Beijing scholar who visited the exhibition.

"I believe many visitors will be impressed by these precious relics of Khitan. They represent part of the fabulous historic and multi-ethnic cultural heritage of China."

(China Daily June 14, 2002)

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